[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Tuesday, 22 February, 2005, 16:48 GMT
Young in the Arab World: Bahrain

By Mounira Chaieb
BBC Arabic Service

A tiny island state in the gulf, Bahrain has a buzzing club scene and alcohol is allowed. But how free do young people feel in the capital Manama, and what future they see for themselves?

Young Bahraini men at coffee shop in Manama
Manama's youth socialise at many coffee shops in the city
Bahrain lies in the Gulf, just off the eastern coast of its huge, wealthy neighbour, Saudi Arabia.

It is an island with a population of just over 500,000 people, a third of them foreign workers.

But despite being small and lacking in oil wealth, Bahrain has great ambitions.

"Bahrain is undergoing a lot of developments," says 23-year-old investment analyst Ibrahim al-Shiba.

"Economically, financially, there are a lot of new investments coming into town."

Ibrahim says Bahrain is witnessing a boom that is the envy of the five other Gulf Co-operation Council countries - Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman.

Indeed it wants to become the Singapore of the Gulf and Middle East region - its financial and banking centre.

Free choices

Bahrain is known for its openness compared to the rest of the Gulf countries.

At weekends, young men from the more conservative neighbouring states stream in by air or via the causeway from Saudi Arabia.

"Bahrain is a very liberal country. I think the success of any country is providing people with choice," Ibrahim says.

"People who don't like drinking or clubbing have the choice to go or not to go. If you want to go to a mosque and pray five times a day and go home that's their choice."

I caught up with one young Saudi man, 20-year-old Nayef, who has come to Bahrain to escape Saudi laws banning alcohol and the mixing of the sexes.

Ibrahim al-Shiba and friend Reham
Ibrahim is happy to live with Bahrain's relative freedoms
His main concern is to have fun, "going to the cinema and the shops".

But many locals do not welcome the visitors' behaviour.

Cruising Manama's malls and pursuing young Bahraini women, a number of Gulf Arabs have even been involved in fatal traffic accidents.

Ibrahim El-Shiba recounts a horror story in which a friend of his lost his whole family because of a drunken visitor at the wheel of a car.

"He was drunk, he was drunk, and that really makes me feel angry," he says.

Family honour

In local elections two years ago Bahraini women were allowed to vote for the first time, as well as to run for office.

But in common with most Arab societies young women are not as free as young men.

"Good girls" certainly don't go clubbing. Ibrahim's friend Ghazi admits this when talking about his sister.

Fatma in the hairdresser's she works in, Manama Bahrain
Fatma sees no contradiction between her job and her religious convictions
"Me going out yes, but her no. I trust her 100%, she's telling me everything about her life. It's a question of honour."

I visit a segregated women's hairdresser, where many of the women are only ever likely to show their hair to husbands, fathers or other women inside the home.

Twenty-seven year old Fatma does not see any contradiction in working in a beauty salon surrounded by posters of Western woman while she wears a complete veil outside the salon.

Esmahan - an attractive divorcee with two children - fulfils her thirst for freedom on the internet.

Everything in her room, like her car - a Jaguar - she bought online.

"I have a different world. It is more exciting to me than going out."

"There is lots of variety on the internet. It is a bigger world than outside."

Aged 20, Esmahan married her cousin against the wishes of her family. Within a few months he became violent and beat her.

"I feel shy to talk to people, men. I don't have men friends, no way."

Sectarian divide

With a majority of Shia Muslims, religion is potentially a very divisive issue in Bahrain.

At almost 70% of the population, Shias on the whole suffer more deprivation than Sunni Muslims, who make up the elite - including the ruling family.

The national unemployment rate is 16% - one of the highest in the Gulf - but among Shias it is almost double that.

Esmahan (l) with her chidren and mother
Esmahan (left) keeps in constant touch with her mother by mobil phone
Fatma is a student at a religious seminary and works part-time in a hairdressing salon to fund her studies and help her family.

She feels the government should have paid for her university place, especially as the country prides itself on having an unusually high number of graduates.

"Unemployment is a big problem in Bahrain and is a big shame as it's known as the land of the knowledgeable."

It's an issue that Ghazi, another young Shia, feels very strongly about.

He thinks that there is deliberate discrimination against the Shias in Bahrain, something that has led to numerous protests, some of which turned violent in the last few years.

But on the whole, there is relative peace in Bahrain and the island is witnessing an economic boom which puts its young people in a far better position in terms of education and job opportunities than their contemporaries in the other Arab countries I visited.

The third in a four-part series - "Young in the Arab World" - will be broadcast on the BBC World Service on 23 February.

Country profile: Bahrain
04 Jan 05 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Bahrain
04 Jan 05 |  Country profiles


News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East | South Asia
UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health
Have Your Say | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific